The French beret has become the famous symbol of all things French to some extent – at least among those outside of France. The traditional French beret is just a flat circular hat of felted wool with a little “tail” poking out the top. But stick one of these on anything and it automatically becomes French.
There is no doubt that it is a practical little hat. It’s warm, waterproof, and can be tucked in your pocket when it’s not needed. But it’s much more than just a simple head covering. It’s a statement and an attitude that adapts to anyone’s personal style. This might explain why it has been worn by such divers segments of society over the past decades years. From shepherd to artist, soldier to film star, the beret has identified and conveyed the mood of its wearer.
It cannot be denied that the beret has a strong association with France, beret has been worn in the rest world throughout history, and the French don’t claim to have invented it. In fact, they credit Noah with its invention. Supposedly, when he was floating around in his ark getting rained on, he noticed that the wool on the floor in the sheep pen had been trampled and turned into felt. He cut out a circle, put it on his head to keep his hair dry, and voila! The first beret.
In more modern times, it was the 17th century shepherds in the French regions of Béarn and Basque who are responsible for the beret’s popularization in France. They figured if the wool kept the sheep at a comfortable temperature in sun, wind, and rain, maybe it could do the same for them. It’s said, they stuffed wool in their shoes to keep their feet warm and dry. They discovered that the compression of walking on it and the humidity from the wet ground caused the fibers to cling together and turned the wool into felt. These early shepherds made their berets from the wool of their own sheep. But they weren’t great hat makers and their head coverings were sometimes smelly and hairy.
Then in the early 1800s mass production of berets began and the flat caps became more standardized… and better smelling. The southwest of France already had a long history of textile production so it was only natural that they started to produce the cap that was so popular in the area. The first beret factory started production in 1810 and others followed. In the early factories, the caps were still knitted by hand and the little “tail” on the top of the beret was the ends of the fibers. When they began to be machine knitted, there was no “tail” so, of course, it had to be added – because a “tail-less” beret just wouldn’t be a beret hat.